Is this the end of brand Beckham?
Scotsman – Edinburgh,Scotland,UK
Leading PR man Mark Borkowski, whose clients include Vodafone, Peugeot and Virgin Megastores, is more optimistic for Posh and Becks.
FOR DAVID BECKHAM, it is simply the way his foot behaves, as it sends a spinning ball curving past defenders and goalkeepers after one of his set-piece free-kicks. To scientists at Canada’s University of Calgary who developed a new football boot for Beckham, his trademark was a new jargon term: optimal mass distribution.
Optimal mass distribution, marketed as a pioneering characteristic of the Adidas Predator Pulse shoe, means shifting the weight of the boot from the heel to the toe, in order to increase ball velocity by up to three per cent. (A significant amount, for the uninitiated).
But the term also seems a perfect description of England captain David Beckham and his wife, Victoria, as a modern phenomenon. Six years and three children after they married, they remain Britain’s most sought-after couple, be that by A-List party organisers, glossy magazine editors or the celebrity-obsessed British public.
The most talented English footballer of his generation and the arguably less talented songstress were each feted in their own right long before it was rumoured they had fallen in love. But, when they sat down on golden thrones at their wedding breakfast, they became the king and queen of the celebrity circuit in the UK – and further afield. If they had powerful images as individuals, together they became greater than the sum of their parts, and the sponsorship deals rolled in. But is Brand Beckham past its sell-by date?
This week what was once seen as the strongest celebrity marriage took another public knock as the Beckhams’ former nanny, Abbie Gibson, claimed in the News of the World that during her two years inside the Beckham household she witnessed endless rows between the couple. Lawyers for the footballer and his wife launched a legal challenge to stop publication, but, on Saturday evening, High Court Judge Mr Justice Langley ruled that the newspaper could publish. According to the News of the World, its counsel, Richard Spearman, QC, persuaded the judge that its story was “in the clear public interest”. As Phil Taylor, one of the newspaper’s reporters, put it to the BBC: “The Beckhams have made millions portraying their relationship as a perfect marriage. Abbie lived in their house for two years and she heard their rows. At Christmas it reached breaking point and she heard David say to her that he wanted to split. What’s clear is that Victoria is madly in love with him, and David hasn’t been feeling the same.”
He declined to say how much his newspaper had paid the nanny for her story.
The nanny telling tales is the stuff of every celebrity’s nightmares, but when you have earned millions in sponsorship deals on the strength of your image as a happy family, it is enough to make even your bank manager weep. Whether the Beckhams’ marriage will survive, only they can know. But, in the eyes of some public relations experts, Posh and Becks as a brand is now in its last gasp.
The media obsession began when the couple met in March 1997 – at the height of Victoria’s fame as Posh Spice. It reached new heights at their 1999 wedding at Luttrellstown Castle in Ireland. Cynics guffawed at what they saw as the vulgarity of the occasion – Victoria in a £60,000 Vera Wang dress, a reception costing an estimated £500,000 and a £1 million publication deal with OK! magazine. Yet, they were, in celebrity terms, becoming a modern-day Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Victoria’s pop career might have been heading for decline, but she had a glamorous new role as the fairytale bride of the nation’s most popular footballer.
When her solo album, VB, sold just 50,000 copies, she split from the Virgin label and moved effortlessly into her new incarnation as celebrity mother. Meanwhile, Becks set about becoming a superstar, with a £25 million move from Manchester United to Real Madrid in July 2003. A year earlier, as part of the England team in Japan for the 2002 World Cup, he was mobbed amid the kind of hysteria normally reserved for teen groups. The national icon had clearly gone global.
There were hiccups, most notably claims last year by Rebecca Loos, Beckham’s erstwhile personal assistant in Spain, that she had an affair with the striker. But, publicly, they patched it up, frolicking lovingly on the ski slopes within hours of Loos’ tabloid claims. Brand Beckham survived.
And in a perverse way, the Loos affair could have strengthened the power of Posh and Becks as a marketing man’s dream. It achieved that Holy Grail of celebrity marketing – namely illustrating that they are just like us, people whose relationship suffers ups and downs. We were like them, and so their pulling power for product endorsement held strong.
But now the Beckhams’ home life is in the headlines again, and some marketing experts believe that it will need an awful lot of wallpaper to cover the cracks this time. The News of the World published seven pages of revelations in which their former nanny, Gibson, was quoted as saying: “Their fortune is based on them having a successful marriage. If there wasn’t a commercial interest holding them together, they would be finished.” Maybe the judge agreed, but whatever he felt, he allowed Gibson’s comments to be published, a ruling which will send celebrities scuttling to examine their staff-confidentiality clauses.
It was more heartache for the Beckhams, who responded by saying they are consulting lawyers with a view to taking legal action. But what will it mean for their bank balance? Public relations guru Max Clifford – the man who brokered last Sunday’s £300,000 story on behalf of Gibson and who represented Loos – believes the Beckham brand is now potentially vulnerable. Clifford says: “If an important part of that Beckham brand is the ideal family, the happy family, the devoted family, the dedicated family – this, then, is far more damaging than a couple of girls making revelations that they allegedly had affairs with David,” he says. “I think that major companies and corporations will look at it, but it depends.”
The Beckhams’ own PR machine will now be in overdrive in a bid to keep their clients’ family image as bright as it can be. The Beckhams are represented by Henry’s House PR in London, run by Julian Henry, whose clients include Coca-Cola, Virgin Mobile, Pop Idol, Will Young and Gareth Gates.
Lucy Barrett, the deputy editor of Marketing Week magazine, believes Henry’s House will have its work cut out if Brand Beckham is to continue to thrive. “Sponsorship deals can be affected if a company has particular values or if consistent bad behaviour starts to make the shareholders unhappy,” she says. “In the case of David Beckham, people are buying into Beckham as a father and as a family man, so there could be problems.”
Leading PR man Mark Borkowski, whose clients include Vodafone, Peugeot and Virgin Megastores, is more optimistic for Posh and Becks. He believes that if the Beckhams play it right, the nanny’s revelations could help them. “Most people would understand that a nanny in a home is a position of trust, and that trust has been broken here.”
But one of the key factors in the survival of Brand Beckham is that celebrity status is, by definition, a relative thing. The Beckhams might not be as attractive as they once were, but they might still be the sponsors’ choice if they can remain the best footballer-and-glamour-girl brand around.
Cue Wayne Rooney, the 19-year-old Manchester United and England star and his fiancee, Coleen McLoughlin, who, in recent weeks, have, in one way, eclipsed the Beckhams as the premier couple of the moment. Coleen and Wayne are a tabloid editor’s dream – a teenage prodigy on ludicrous earnings, paying for the shopaholic tendencies of his ‘down-to-earth’ girlfriend.
Until recently, the tabloids tended to run formulaic images of Coleen staggering from department stores laden with designer-label shopping. But that image was tempered by carefully-placed stories underlining the couple’s ordinariness, even though the Liverpool teenager is paid £1 million a year by Coca Cola and has a long-term £5 million deal with Nike. At last, the marketing men were heard to whisper aloud, a new Posh and Becks, with extra Chav appeal.
As if to reinforce their credentials, just last week the couple were snapped in a McDonald’s restaurant in Liverpool, shortly after Coleen revealed how she and Wayne favoured takeaways rather than expensive restaurants.
This Everyman image was becoming common newspaper currency until the Sun ran a story claiming Rooney had slapped his girlfriend in a nightclub – a claim the couple strenuously deny. The couple’s PR, Ian Monk Associates, reacted by employing Schillings – one of the legal companies most feared by Fleet Street – to begin proceedings against the Sun. Thus far, the publicity has not affected Rooney’s sponsorship deals. But next time the marketing men are looking for wholesome, will they turn to Wayne and Coleen?
Or will they go in search of Brand Beckham, which may be looking a little more battered than it used to, but still shimmers by default?